This review contains spoilers for Steven Universe season 5 (and prior seasons). Please proceed with caution.
Steven Universe is one of my favorite shows of all time. Whenever I try to get my friends to watch it, I bill it as the show of “music, love, and understanding.” The Cartoon Network hit is an emotionally mature show with incredibly memorable musical numbers. The show revolves around Steven, son of a human and a Gem who led a rebellion against a galaxy-spanning empire, and his Gem guardians.
Unlike many cartoons that were mostly made up from self-contained narratives, Steven Universe has long story arcs with side-character adventure episodes sprinkled in between, and the show does not shy away from change (coupled with the wildly erratic release schedule the show has adopted, it is a wonder kids could follow the story at all). So much has changed in this season. Mayor Dewey is no longer the Mayor of Beach City; can you believe that? The Big Donuts duo, Sadie and Lars, parted ways, and each was occupied by new quests. Much and more has happened in the latest season, and elements sowed in past seasons had finally come into play.
The story structure of this season is overall more complete and coherent than the previous one, which at times felt like the sum of several tiny arcs. Season 5 immediately picked up from Aquamarine and two Topazs’ abduction mission from last season. Half of season 5 was dedicated to Steven and Lars’s escape from Homeworld and how different characters react to the impending threat of the Diamonds. Things started to slow down with a few little adventures with some Beach City citizens in the middle of the season until another bomb was dropped, then season 5 picked up its pace again and ended explosively. The improved pacing might not be apparent at first due to months-long-wait between each batch of episodes, but it is more evident during binge-watches.
While on the ship destined to the Gem Homeworld, Steven proved once again why he was the true leader of the rebel group Crystal Gem. Though Steven lacked the millennia worth of knowledge and combat experience, he was ever steadfast, and he possessed the ability to galvanize his companions. Using the power of communication, he was able to get mopey Lars to put himself together and turned the Topaz guards. For a show that features an alien species that could make weapons materialize out of thin air, it resolved many conflicts with a speech, but Steven Universe never treats this as a cheap clutch (and we know from last season’s villain it doesn’t always work). Steven had mostly grown out of his childish self, but he is still as genuine as ever, and the writing effectively reflected it whenever he opened himself to others.
Character growth has always been a major part of Steven Universe, and it rings even truer with this season. Lars has pretty much been the same person in the past four seasons. He was cynical, insecure, and too cool to care about things. In the past, you have several episodes of him learning the lessons of empathy, but the lessons only stick for a short while until he snapped back to his usual self. In this season, he was given a more important role, and he finally became the type of person who put others’ needs above his own. Lars eventually assumed leadership of a group of outcast Gems he encountered on Homeworld. In a heroic act, he even gave his life to protect a Gem from a Homeworld Sentry’s attack. However, Lars was soon revived by Steven with his newfound power, and he returned to life with new traits and abilities that were similar to Steven’s mysterious pet created by his mother Rose, Lion. That’s another mystery solved.
In cartoons, it’s not uncommon to see characters brush off dirt and bruises, and everything begins anew in the next episode, but it is not so in Steven Universe. Events unfolded may take a toll on characters. The show frequently tackles complex emotions, and most of all, it cares about the mental well-being of its characters and viewers. To secure his friends’ release after the Crystal Gems failed to thwart the abduction, Steven claimed to be his mother Rose Quartz and allowed himself to be captured. This act shocked his companions. Steven’s closest (human) friend, Connie, took it particularly hard. Though Steven managed to escape, Connie’s feeling of being betrayed could not be eased even with the rational knowledge of his safety. The show finds time for characters and lets them figure themselves out, and it did that on several occasions after yet another secret of Rose Quartz came to light.
One thing I really like about Steven Universe is how many plot developments of the show have been planned from early on. Show creator Rebecca Sugar once said in an interview that the wedding of Ruby and Sapphire was one of the earliest concepts the showrunners envisioned. The showrunners planted many clues along the way before they finally showed their hands. As a result, no single one of this show’s reveals (and there were quite a few) felt like a plot contrivance. Among the show’s biggest mysteries was Rose Quartz’s true identity, and it resurfaced towards the end of season 5.
The episodes leading to the final confirmation were well done. Episode 12, “Jungle Moon,” left a particularly huge impression. While Stevonnie (the Fusion between Steven and Connie) was assisting Lars in his odyssey, they accidentally crashed landed on an abandoned Gem colony. The derelict command center triggered a dream-like vision, and it was impressively executed. The Crewniverse (the name showrunners gave themselves) captured the trippy feeling of a dream; memories from different points in time were blended together with deft editing, and together they formed a bizarre sequence that invited viewers to piece together the truth. The electronic soundtrack also enhanced the eerie atmosphere.
Who was Rose? Many different people had tried to answer this question, and they each had a different answer. But as the story progressed, friends and foes can all agree on one thing: she was not the person they thought she was. In this show, there is no simple good versus evil. There are two sides to every story, and Steven Universe is not afraid to get into the intricate nature of relationships. In “A Pale Rose,” through a trip into Pearl’s head, Pearl circumvented a restriction placed on her and revealed to Steven his mother’s true identity. Rose Quartz was Pink Diamond, one of the four ruling powers of the Gem empire. This piece of information did not provide closure to anyone; in fact, it complicated things further. The rebel leader who had done questionable things and deceived her comrades turned out to be the cause of countless loss of life from the war she waged on herself, and from the retaliation from all three Diamonds after Pink faked her own death.
Garnet un-fused and split up into Sapphire and Ruby over this news, but Steven Universe does what it does best: communication and reconciliation. The show continues to demonstrate its progressive stance after featuring gay couples, unorthodox family structure, and non-binary character in the past; to reaffirm Ruby and Sapphire’s love for each other, season 5 of Steven Universe made television history with the first on-screen LGBT proposal in mainstream animation. After four seasons, the show only got better at delivering genuine heart-warming happiness uncorrupted by cynicism. The song performed by the cast prior to the ceremony—“For One Day Let’s Only Think About Love”—was one of the highlights of the season, and it is definitely on my top three songs of the entire series.
There is one last character I need to mention before making my closing statement: White Diamond. She is the leader of the Gem worlds. Feared by all, even by her peers. And her first appearance in “Legs From Here to Homeworld” did not disappoint. The musicality and condescension of Christine Ebersole’s voice imbued so much personality to White Diamond with just a few short lines. Her enormous size and her unnerving, unchanging posture really hammered in the impression that she is more (mad) god than Gem. I still get goosebumps from watching that brilliantly directed scene even after my nth replay. What an entrance!
This season was packed with compelling drama from the very start, but unfortunately, the sense of momentum was undermined by a months-long hiatus. Nevertheless, Steven Universe still remains one of the best shows on TV with its lovable characters, mature and intelligent storytelling, and season 5 is most confident in its stride when delivering powerful messages regarding relationships and mental health. Simply put, season 5 is the strongest the show has ever been, and I cannot wait to see what the Crewniverse has in store for us with the TV movie announced at the San Diego Comic Con.